I want to say a few personal words to my party friends and colleagues, straight and gay, after this week’s debates and votes on the same-sex marriage bill.
I voted for the second reading of the bill but abstained at third reading. I tried to make clear my reasons in my three speeches on the bill in February and this week. Please read them carefully. Some of you may be pleased or relieved that some Liberal Democrat MPs, including me, voted for amendments and against third reading or abstained on third reading. You may share our beliefs on this issue or our interpretation of what is taught by our faith.
But I am clear that the majority of party members probably take a different view. And I want to say a few words especially to you.
First, if I have hurt or offended you or made you angry, I am truly sorry. I know how much some of you feel hurt – or really let down or both. I am really, really feeling that. Which is why I want to say a few other things so that some misunderstandings can hopefully be dealt with and some hurt can be healed.
I have been a Liberal and Liberal Democrat for over 40 years. I have rarely been in the minority in our party, but I know too that on many votes and issues in our party and parliamentary party there are dissenting views, and we always try to understand and respect them. On behalf of those of us with a minority party view now, I simply ask that we are given similar understanding on this issue. My record in and out of parliament on equality issues I hope stands up well to scrutiny. With Archy Kirkwood I led for us in the Commons in opposing section 28 – when the Tories supported it and the official Labour position in committee was to abstain. Though I initially wanted it to be 17 for everybody not 16, I always supported an equal age of consent. I have regularly fought privately and publicly for gay people and couples locally, nationally and internationally. And one other very important thing. My local party, our regional, national and federal parties and my own office over the years have been hugely more caring and more effective because of the contribution of the most bright, wonderful and committed gay people, many of whom I have treasured and still treasure as very close friends. I know that, acknowledge that and am proud of that and of them. Not just because of my own personal and political history and sexuality, I feel a personal responsibility to support gay and bisexual people and those struggling with sexuality whenever possible.
I have also been a member of the Christian church for nearly 20 years longer than my membership of our party. Of course Christianity did not establish marriage, or only ever countenance monogamy. Christian marriage ceremonies have not existed everywhere and all the time since the life and death of Jesus, and have only been legally recognised in this country since the middle ages – since when increasing numbers of Christian churches and other faiths have been allowed to perform marriage ceremonies conducted before God but also recognised as marriage by the state. There is no uniform Christian view on many things, within denominations or churches let alone between them. But my view on marriage is, I understand, the official and majority view of my denomination and most of the other Christian churches in this country. As well as of many other faiths. I have held this belief since long before I was first elected. I believe that all creation is of God and loved equally by God: female and male and those who believe themselves to be neither, and people of all races and ethnicity and ability and sexuality and of all faiths and none. I also believe that the partnership of one man and one woman in lifelong commitment – which came to be known as marriage – is at the heart of the created order, and especially blessed by God. And that the law of the land should recognise this traditional view of marriage.
But all my political life, I have supported disestablishment of the Church of England – and a few years ago was one of those involved in the successful initiative to make this our party policy. As an evangelical protestant Christian and as a Liberal I really want a separation between church and state. In the interests of both. Since the mid 19th century our law has legitimised and formalised non-religious weddings. Consistent with this, I believe that heterosexual, gay, lesbian, transgender and non-gendered people should all be able to have the choice of an identical sort of civil partnership or of a civil marriage or union. This should be separate from Christian or other faith marriages. But the way of reconciling the two is for us first to separate completely in law the recognition of relationships by the state from the marriages conducted by churches, other faith groups – and humanists, but then also to allow those faith communities which wish to recognise gay and heterosexual marriages equally in their ceremonies the ability to do so, and with identical consequences in the law of the land.
This is a time for liberals to promote loudly our liberal values. For us to support not orthodoxy but difference and dissent. For single people and couples, straight or gay, of all faiths and none, to be able to practice our religions, express our beliefs and choose our relationships within the law with equal freedom. But always permitting, respecting and celebrating our differences and different views. Equal but not identical .Nobody a prisoner of the old orthodoxies or the new. And all of us always seeking to love, respect, serve and value each other more – every day. Which I am very conscious is something I still need to do much better myself.